There aren’t too many times when I have occasion to bring my classroom experiences to this blog – this being a nature nature as opposed to a human nature endeavor. As an occasional substitute teacher, however, there are times when I see the two worlds collide. For instance, there was the incident from last month when a Mallard Duck kept the children of Raisinville Elementary at bay. All were forced to use the lower elementary playground because a lonely, and somewhat aggressive, mallard drake was attempting to enter the school doors adjacent to the upper Playground. When the fowl suddenly appeared in the lower elementary playground I was forced to stand between it and the children as they cavorted about. The thing nipped at my pant legs a few times but there were no further incidents.
There was also the “rolly polly” incident in a Kindergarten class and numerous “fly in the room” affairs, but the most recent involved a bunch of birds and a 3rd/4th grade class. We were finishing up on our math discussion (involving the arrangement of truffles in a box – half of the time required explaining what a truffle was) when a huge flock of Starlings appeared in the snowy courtyard outside the windows. Some began plucking dried fruit from the berry laden Crabapple tree as others gleaned seeds from the sun-melted strip of grass along the base of the wall adjacent to the opposite wing of the building.
There was no way to ignore them, so I opted to redirect attention from math to a teachable moment in natural history. The kids rushed to the window without hesitation. I asked that they should simply observe the birds and see what they were doing – this they did, but not quietly. All started chirping with delight whenever the flock performed one of their explosive flight maneuvers. The chunky darkish birds lifted from the ground, cart-wheeled in the air, and re-settled on a new patch of grass accompanied by an inside chorus of “oohs” and “ahhs.” On several occasions, a single bird, misjudging its angle of flight, would gently bounce off the window and the class would respond with loud laughter. It was like watching a silent movie with live action and the kids were enjoying it.
After the action subsided, we talked (er, I mean discussed) the situation. They noticed that the birds were like little crows with speckles. Some caught glimpses of reflected purple or blue and others noted that the birds were pulling berries from the tree and flying in synchrony, without using the actual word. When told that the flock was feeding on grass and weed seeds in the exposed patches most recalled seeing them pecking at the ground. It was only after the observational part was bantered about that the word “Starling” was used to identify the birds. In this case “who” they were was less important than “what” they were doing (elementary my dear Watson).
With the onset of harsher weather conditions the local Starlings have been clustering into massive winter flocks. Such gatherings serve a protective function. Sheer force of numbers and the dazzle effect of continual motion will keep even the most patient of Cooper’s Hawks on edge. The elementary flock was one of dozens I have seen over the past week alone. Nary an ornamental crab or plot of open grass is safe from assault. Of particular note, the sun-warmed bases of the larger trees in my yard have been hit several times.
The ground foraging behavior of individual birds consists of probing and leaf flipping. Using their long pointy beaks, they investigate every possible location. Both seeds and hibernating insects are eagerly gobbled up. When a whole group is so engaged there is barely a square inch of ground left unturned or unharvested.
As I noted earlier, the kids in my classroom were impressed by the speckled nature of the courtyard flock. Winter Starlings are completely different birds from summer Starlings. They are the same birds but look vastly different due to their spotty nature and dark bills. Many of the birds are young-of-the-year with a pale brown background.
As we finished the discussion portion of our classroom Starling segment, another bird banged into the window and the kids loudly returned to the window. The teacher returned to the room about this time (I was on a half-day assignment) to see her class in chaotic mode. Once assessed of the situation she laughed and nodded in agreement. “This is probably the most fun this class has had in some time,” she said.